Io Saturnalia!

Happy Christmas!

Or, as it should more properly be said, Io Saturnalia!

Because Christmas is a pagan Roman festival in honour of the god Saturn.  The Io is pronounced Yo, making ancient Romans sound somewhat like rappers.  Saturnalia was appropriated by early Christians for the birth of Jesus, because there wasn't the slightest hope of getting people to give up their beloved Saturnalia.

Saturnalia was the Time of Misrule.  All normal order disappeared.  Masters were expected to serve their own slaves.  Saturnalia began on what we'd call 17th December and carried on for a week or more of non-stop partying.  Several Roman emperors tried to limit the time of Saturnalia, but everyone ignored them.

The official last day of Saturnalia was our 23rd December, called Sigillaria, when people gave each other gifts.

Does this sound familiar?  Christmas/Saturnalia is such an ancient festival that no one has the faintest clue when it first began.  When you gather round on Christmas Day with your friends and family and exchange gifts and happiness, you'll be carrying on a human tradition that's been going for thousands of years.

Keep up the good work.

Io Saturnalia!

A dead man really did fall from the sky

"A dead man fell from the sky, landing at my feet with a thump."  That was the first line in my first book: The Pericles Commission.  

When I wrote that line, I was thinking, what's the most ridiculous way to discover a body that anyone could imagine?  What's something that couldn't possibly happen?

Well, now it's happened.  Residents of Mortlake in London on the 8th September at 7.42am were surprised when a dead man fell from the sky, and landed in one of their residential streets with a resounding thump.

It seems the victim was a stowaway on a jet, who like others before him had decided to hide in the landing gear compartment.  Mortlake is under the flightpath for Heathrow airport.  When the landing wheels descended, out he came.  He was probably already dead.  Very few people can survive unprotected at 30,000 feet.

Here's the story from the BBC news.  They still don't know who he was.


When I began this blog I was stuck for a title, so I used A dead man fell from the sky as a placeholder.  I figured I'd change it later to something that looked more official.

But then when the series sold, and I revamped the web site and changed the name to The Athenian Mysteries, the one piece of clear feedback that came winging back to me was that everyone liked the original name!  So A dead man fell from the sky I am, and shall remain.  But this is a very weird example of life imitating art.


Zombie apocalypse begins at the Large Hadron Collider

You might recall when they discovered the Higgs Particle at the Large Hadron Collider, that I wrote about what is a Higgs particle and why does anyone care.

Now a group of PhD students who work there have made a zombie movie shot on site.  The premise goes that radiation from the Higgs experiments has turned a maintenance crew into zombies who now shamble through the maintenance corridors in search of brains, a food source which should, in theory, be quite plentiful at the LHC.

The movie is acted with all the skill that you would expect a bunch of nuclear physicists to bring to the thespian arts.  But they did a pretty good job on the production.

The movie's 75 minutes.  Here's the trailer:



The last words of Nero

"A pity that such an artist should die." 
 -- Nero, crazed Emperor of Rome and well-known muso.  He really knew how to set a gig on fire.
The story that Nero fiddled while Rome burned is probably false, but he really was a wannabee rock star.  There's a story that once, during yet another purge of the Senate, a number of Senators were rounded up in the middle of the night by the praetorian guard.  The fearful Senators were herded to a theatre, where they were made to sit for a long time, expecting that at any moment they would be slaughtered.  Then suddenly Nero appeared on the stage.  He danced around for a while before disappearing off-stage; then the Senators were allowed to go home.

In the annals of career placement, Nero was an epic fail.   He's Roman, but I can't help mentioning him because of his lovely final words, which have a small chance of being accurate.

Illegal combination of beef with black bean sauce

I told my daughters this story from my past, and they insisted I write it here...

A long time ago I used to work for a small company called Softway, that got operating systems to work on newly invented computers.  Mostly we ported Unix to new hardware, since Unix was the most popular operating system.  The ubiquitous Linux of modern times is based on Unix, so if you think Linux you've got the right idea.

At one time we had a contract to get Unix running on a new line of minicomputers designed and built by a US company called Edge Computing.  They've long since gone out of business, but at the time Edge had sold a lot of machines to a US government department called NASA.  We just had to get Unix running on these boxes.

Now system programmers tend to work hours normally associated with vampires, and there weren't many restaurants open to feed us late at night.  We often ended up at a local Chinese place.  One night one of us ordered the beef with black bean sauce.  I can't recall, but I think it might have been me.

One of our number fancied himself a culinary expert.  He complained loudly that beef with black bean sauce is not a valid Chinese dish.  Which is true.  Every Chinese restaurant in the world serves beef with black bean sauce, but you'll never find it offered in China where it's supposed to come from.

Later that night, said culinary expert called us all over to his workstation.  Unix is written in the C programming language.  A very common error message that you get in C is this:

Illegal combination of pointer and integer types

You don't care what it means, but he had changed it on the new computer so that, after 17 instances of the real message, the computer would instead print this:

Illegal combination of beef with black bean sauce

When printed in system font they were the same length.  We all thought this was hilarious, as such things always are at one in the morning, and went back to our work.  We duly finished the job, shipped a working operating system to Edge, who in turn shipped loads of computers to NASA.

About 6 months later, we get a phone call from NASA.  They're getting a funny error message that says, "Illegal combination of beef with black bean sauce."  They want to know what it means.

We explain that beef with black bean sauce is not a valid Chinese dish.

We sheepishly admit that it's a joke we forgot to remove, that slipped through our final tests.

We are not popular, because it also slipped past the acceptance tests of Edge Computing, who signed it off and whose QA people now look like idiots.  NASA is not amused.  The wrong error message is clearly no danger to anyone, but among other things they're using these systems to design bits that fly in the space shuttle.  If this got through, then what other problems could be lurking in there?

So we had to test the thing all over again!  And luckily for us, though we did pick up some minor problems, there was nothing serious.  This incident inspired me in later years, when I was running projects, to deliberately insert errors into systems to determine how well the testers had done their job.  By measuring how many deliberate errors were found, you could get a statistical measure for how many real errors remained.


Blog tours and book review policy

This isn't a blog post so much as a public service announcement, so if you're a regular reader, you can safely move on to the next one.

I've been getting a lot of requests recently to either host blog tours for people I don't know, or else write reviews for books.  To save people who are considering this the trouble of emailing, here is my policy on this stuff:

I don't host blog tours.  In fact I don't do blog tours myself either.  I do from time to time write guest posts, and I enjoy doing it.  I'd love to do more, the only difficulty being that I have a few deadlines to keep.

I don't do book reviews.

While I do frequently mention books that I've read, it helps if you've been dead for 2,000 years or more.  Slightly less deceased authors who get mentioned tend to be either long-time readers whose success I love to celebrate, writer friends whom I know from fan conferences, writer friends whom I know from across the internet, or books whose awesomeness is so directly relevant to what I typically write about that it's a no-brainer to talk about them.

The blog began as my place for book research overflow .  It's expanded slightly since then, but that remains its primary purpose.  I know my own books are plastered all over the page, but that's because this is also my place of business, sort of.  I used to run two separate web sites: one my author site for the books, and one my blog, then realized that made no sense and merged the two.

I suspect the single most useful piece of author information on this site is my email address down the right hand side.  Any number of fans have used it to email me, and I love to hear from readers, so don't be shy!

For what it's worth to people interested in book marketing, I'd say overwhelmingly the two most effective things are word-of mouth recommendation from people who've enjoyed your books; and the public libraries.  Libraries are grossly underrated.  It's amazing how much of my fan email is from people who discovered me at their local library.


Giveaway at Criminal Element!

In slightly more sensible news, the nice people at Criminal Element are giving away a pack of eight books, one of which happens to be The Pericles Commission.   You have to register with them and be a resident of the US, but otherwise it's freebie city.

Good luck!

I had no idea I was so popular

Just thought I'd mention that I came across what is obviously a dodgy individual who is selling a used copy of The Pericles Commission for a mere $3,396.  I know I'm a good writer, but that may be a tad excessive.


The oldest known curse inscribed on a cup

Constantina Katsari is a professor of ancient history at the University of Leicestershire.  As you might guess, she's Greek, and that's her specialty.  Over on her blog, she reports today the discovery of the oldest known curse inscribed on a drinking cup.

I've previously written about ancient Greek magic and curse tablets.  The Greeks believed in magic, though a very different kind to the sort we think of these days.  Mostly they wrote curse tablets.

Constantina reports the cup that's been discovered dates to 730-690BC, which puts it an astounding 250 years before the time of Nicolaos and Diotima, and the cup says I am (the cup) of Akesandros and (whoever steals me) will lose his eyes (or money).


Elections and Luck

With elections coming up for our friends in the US, here's a quick description of how you'd be voting if we were all back in ancient Athens.

Every election was a combination of vote and lottery.  The Athenians fiddled with the voting system constantly.  They'd only just invented democracy after all, and they weren't afraid to experiment to see what worked best.  But the system always had the same basic elements.  It went something like this:

  1. Each of the ten tribes took it in turn to supply candidates.  (So that each tribe supplied officials once every ten years.)
  2. The tribe whose turn it was selected candidates for all the elected positions.  The candidates were selected by lottery from across the tribe.
  3. All the citizens of Athens then voted from among the randomly-selected candidates for who they thought would do the best job.

Note the lottery system.  It guaranteed that, unlike modern systems, everyone had an equal chance of one day holding office, and that serial power-seekers hadn't a hope.

If you'd asked an ancient Athenian, they would have told you, in all seriousness, that the lottery system was an essential part of any democracy, and that any state that didn't have a luck element wasn't a true democracy.  Plato's quite famous for saying that anyone who wants power, shouldn't have it.  But that was actually the default Athenian view.



Yea, even unto the next generation

My younger daughter came home from school today with this week's class assignment.  She has to write about some guy named...Pericles.


History's Best (or at least Greatest) Military Leaders

Purely for fun, I thought I'd talk about something that's long interested me.  Who would you pick for the best military leaders of all time?

There are a lot of factors you can use to quibble with here.  Someone might have been technically brilliant, and yet circumstances drew them a raw deal, so that they never got a chance to shine.  You could argue some other guys lucked out; they were in the right place at the right time, so that they looked better than they were.

So to give it some context, here are the parameters:  if Earth was being attacked by aliens and you could go back in time to pick out one leader to save us, who would be on your list of candidates?

I'll start with the no-brainers, in their chronological order.

1.  Alexander the Great
2.  Julius Caesar
3.  Genghis Khan
4.  Napoleon

You could make an argument that Caesar was a brilliant politician who happened to be an above average general, so that technically he doesn't belong.  But the man was in the habit of winning, and that's what we're looking for; there've been periods in history when the best leader was the one with the organisational skills.

Onwards with the best of the rest:

5.  Khurush the Great

Who?  You probably know him as Cyrus the Great, but his real name was Khurush.  He founded the Persian Empire by starting with a small client state and then conquering everyone in sight.  He built the largest empire the world had yet seen.  Alexander was fascinated by Khurush and studied him intensely.  In turn, Caesar was fascinated by Alexander, and Napoleon by Caesar.  

6.  Charlemagne

You know it's tough company when the founder of the Holy Roman Empire can only get slot #6.   Charlemagne often gets dropped off lists of great leaders, and I don't know why, because it's not like unifying Europe is easy.  Maybe it's because he lived at a time when military technology had reduced the craft to a level of "see-enemy-hit-enemy".

7.  Scipio Africanus

After the battle of Cannae, at which Hannibal's army slaughtered 50,000 Romans, including most of the leadership team, a junior officer named Scipio was given command, at the age of 25.  At that time, Rome's control had been reduced to her city walls.

Scipio reconquered Italy.  Then he reconquered Southern France.  Then he reconquered Spain.  Then he took back the Mediterranean.  Then he invaded North Africa.  Then he conquered Carthage.

Scipio never lost a battle, and he did it against Hannibal, widely considered the greatest commander since Alexander.  There wouldn't be another such match of titans until Napoleon faced Wellington.

Speaking of which...

8.  Hannibal
9.  Wellington

10.  I'm open to suggestions!


Jesus' Marital Status

I can't resist coming back to the subject of reliability of ancient documents, given all the interest at the moment about an ancient scrap of papyrus that mentions Jesus having a better half.  The story goes that Harvard has translated a genuine fragment of 4th century Coptic that says, amongst other things, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...she will be able to be my disciple...'"

The excitement is something of a media beat up, because that scrap was first translated by a German scholar about thirty years ago.  Nobody got too upset back then.  In fact, he was totally ignored.  I guess Harvard has a better PR department.  Be that as it may, I thought it might be fun to look at this as if it were a bit of book research for one of my ancient murder mysteries...could I use this in an historically accurate novel?

First off, just because something was written a long time ago, it doesn't mean it's true!  A lot of people assume that ancient writings are inherently credible.

The ancient world was as well stocked for crazies as the modern.  If you were to collect random scraps of paper from our modern age, and accepted all of them as true, you would certainly come to the conclusion that people in the 21st century were regularly kidnapped by space aliens, that men never walked on the moon, and that 911 was a CIA plot.  Imagine if someone in the future discovered a scientology text.  How embarrassing would that be?  So one possibility is we're looking at the 4th century equivalent of scientologists.

The provenance is unknown.  The papyrus might be from a coffin (they often used old papers to build cheap sarcophagi), or maybe a rubbish tip.  The papyrus appears to be a copy of an older text.  The original could have been written any time in the previous three hundred years.  How close the original dates to 30AD is rather important.  (I once wrote an article about the degree to which I trust historical sources.)  On the evidence, we just don't know.   But the closer it is to the real event, the happier I'd be.

So the next question is, is there any cross-reference to corroborate?  (I use this test all the time for book research.)  The answer is no, not really.  Plenty of speculation about that Magdalene girl, but nothing concrete.

How about archaeological evidence?  No, zero.

Does the information look credible?  Sure it does.  The fact that it's written in Coptic gives it street cred.  There were a lot of Bibles being written in Egypt at at that time in Coptic.  We might be looking at something that got chopped in final revisions.  You know how editors can be.  Also, the original Bible was compiled in Koine Greek by scholars in Egypt who were probably the great great grand dads of the guys doing the Coptic versions.

The ultimate test for any historical novel is, does the idea break history?  This idea doesn't, so it's fair game.



Gary's word of the day is: sudoriparous

While flipping through the dictionary on an unrelated quest, I came across this thing of beauty:

sudoriparous  secreting sweat; pertaining to the secretion of sweat or to the sweat glands

Needless to say, this is going into my next book.

"His nine millimetre Browning he kept in a holster beneath his sudoriparous armpit."


The floor is now open for the most gratuitous use of sudoriparous.


The strange end of Empedocles

You probably haven't heard of Empedocles, but I can guarantee you've heard of his most famous theory.

Empedocles was the guy who came up with the idea that everything is made from earth, air, fire and water.  The four classical elements.

It's sort of ironic that Empedocles lived at the same time as the guy who first realized everything was made of tiny little particles.  The two theories competed for centuries, and in fact the particle theory had the edge well into Roman times.  It was after the fall of the Roman Empire that Christian monks decided the particle idea was obviously rubbish and went with the much more sensible earth/air/fire/water system, thus dooming western civilisation to a few extra centuries of chemical ignorance.

The four elements remain popular to this day in astrology and alchemy and fantasy stories.  Not to mention modern music.  The band Earth, Wind and Fire is named for them.  

Empedocles was into distinctive clothing.  He walked about wearing a purple robe and wore sandals made of bronze.  That must have been incredibly uncomfortable, but these sacrifices must be made if one is to be the special anointed of the Gods, which Empedocles firmly believed himself to be.  I'm afraid it was the sandals that contributed to his greatest debacle.

You see, Empedocles considered his genius to be so great that he deserved to spend the rest of eternity in the company of the Gods on Mt Olympus.

The tricky point was to convince people that this had actually occurred, after he died.   Being Empedocles, he came up with a brilliant scheme.  One night, in his old age, he crept away from his friends -- so that they'd think he'd mysteriously disappeared -- and threw himself into the nearby volcano, Mt Etna.

This crafty plan went horribly wrong a few days later when the volcano had a minor eruption.  One of the bronze sandals was disgorged.  His friends found it on the slope and had no trouble guessing where Empedocles had gone.  I confess I'm somewhat reminded of the grand schemes of Wile E. Coyote.

Empedocles is about thirty years old when Nico and Diotima begin their career as investigators.  Yes, this means that at some point, Nico and Diotima (and Socrates) are going to meet him.


Pythagorean Tuning

Ancient Greece had only four musical instruments that got much air play:  the aulos, which was a V-shaped double flute, pan pipes, the kithara and the lyre.  MP3 players were thin on the ground back then, and music notation was primitive and not much written, so we have almost no idea what the music sounded like.  (Though there've been attempts to reconstruct based on the few surviving lines of notation).

But weirdly, we have a very precise knowledge of how the instruments were tuned.

That's because one day, a lad by the name of Pythagoras noticed a few things about how the kithara and lyre players tuned their strings.  This is the same Pythagoras who came up with the theorem you learned in school about triangles, so it will come as no surprise that he did a minute analysis.

What Pythagoras noticed was firstly, that a string twice as long as another produced the same note but one octave down.  Ditto that a string exactly half the length was precisely one octave up.  This is a piece of pure physics that anyone could spot.

The second thing he noticed, and this was hugely important, was that musicians consistently went for a note in between the octave ends that divided the string in the ratio 3:2.

Musicians will be nodding their heads knowingly, because these days we'd call that ratio a perfect fifth.  Ancient Greek music was based entirely on perfect fifth intervals.  What's more, the interval from the perfect fifth to the next octave up is what we'd call a fourth.  We almost have enough to play the blues.

With no electronic tuners and no way to delicately adjust string tension, probably the best they could manage was to get every string to the same tension and vary the lengths.

So here's how they tuned:  start with a note X, with a string that I'll call a length of 1.  (X has some arbitrary frequency that the musician's picked by ear.)

Now the next octave up is a string of length 2:1 compared to the first string.

The perfect fifth between those octave notes is at 3:2.   That's the first perfect fifth.

Remember in this system, we get each successive note in the scale by going up a perfect fifth from the last.  So to get the perfect fifth up from one at 3/2, we have to multiply the length again by 3/2.  That gives us 9/4. The only problem is, 9/4 is more than 2:1.  We've fallen off the end of the scale!

Not to worry, just drop that note down an octave.  Which we do by halving the string.  That note becomes 9:8.

Our scale now has notes at:  1, 9:8,  3:2, and 2:1

We now go up a perfect fifth from the 9:8 note.  Which we do by multiplying it once again by 3/2.  That gives us a note at 27:16.  Our scale now has notes:  1, 9:8,  3:2, 27:16, 2:1

I won't leave you in suspense.  Here's the final Pythagorean Scale:

1:1   9:8   81:64   4:3   3:2   27:16   243:128   2:1

It's doubtful that Pythagoras invented this.  It's much more likely that he formalized a system that was already in place.  But I'd be willing to bet anything he was the first to work out the ratios.  Musicians were probably tuning up perfect fifths by ear.

You could, in theory, continue adding notes forever, but Pythagoras stopped at 8, presumably because of the practical difficulty of adding more strings.

Pythagorean Tuning was unbelievably successful.  The Greeks used it.  The Romans used it.  It survived to be used in mediaeval times.  In fact it survived until another genius by the name of Johann Sebastian Bach finally killed it off when he wrote a work called The Well Tempered Klavier in the 1700s.

Believe it or not, there are still a few instruments that use Pythagorean Tuning.  This isn't ancient Greek music, but it's using their scale:



Trivia quiz: I scored 10/10 for my own book!

I am relieved to announce that I have scored 10 out of 10 in a trivia quiz about my own book.  Asmah on Goodreads has put up a trivia quiz for The Ionia Sanction.

Here's the quiz if you want to give it a go:   Ionia Sanction Trivia Quiz


Practise and practice. What's the difference?


Here's a recipe for schizophrenia:  be an Australian author, who for preference writes in UK English, but who is published mostly in the US.  I'm well on the way to becoming a walking encyclopaedia of English dialect differences.  So let me share some of the madness with practise vs practice.

Practice with a C and practise with an S are two different parts of exactly the same word.

Practice is a noun.  In every English speaking country in the world, with one exception, practice is only ever a noun.  In that one other country, practice is also a verb.

Everywhere else, practise is always the verb.  Hence:

The doctor practises medicine at his practice. 

The US lost the S word.  So in the US, the doctor practices medicine at his practice.  Which to my eye looks horribly wrong.

Just to make it more fun, practise also used to mean to play a trick on someone.

The English practice originates from the Old French practiser, so that the 's' version is the original, and in medical Latin is spelt with a 'z'.  It also appears in Greek as praktike.  (It's also in Esperanto as praktike!)  Since it's in both Latin and Greek, that makes it a very old Indo-European word.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives practice as interchangeable these days, thanks to the US practice of spelling practise as practice.  (Confused yet?)

I checked Merriam-Webster's, and it says, to my astonishment, that practise remains acceptable usage in some parts of the US.  It doesn't say where, but I guess they mean New England.  It also gives practise as meaning to play a joke, in US usage!


The world's oldest organisation

I was talking to my elder daughter the other day about this question:  what is the world's oldest extant organisation?

The obvious candidate would be the Catholic Church, since it's approaching its 2000th birthday.

I think we can do better though.  My suggestion for the oldest organisation in the world is the Egyptian Public Service.

Egypt is recognizably the same country it was when Menes united the upper and lower Egypts in about 3100BC.  He must have created an organisation to run the place and I'm sure every Pharoah inherited it from his predecessor.

Even in periods when Egypt was thoroughly invaded by Persians, by Romans, by Muslims and by the French, there probably remained a small core of public servants, somewhere, who kept the basic wheels of government running.  (I'm talking about the public service here, not the governments that commanded it.)

I don't think there was any period when Egypt was so destroyed that there was no administration of any sort.  (Someone who knows Egyptian history better than me might correct that.)

If so, then the world's oldest organisation is a bit over 5,000 years old.


A recommended reading list

Poisoned Pen is a well-known -- one might even say famous -- book store that specializes in mysteries, thrillers and spy stories.


I won't copy the list here because it's their copyright, but it's only a click away and will open in a separate window.  They have it sorted by category, type and period.  As it happens, I am <ahem> on the list in the Greek/Roman section.

Casting aside what few dregs of modesty I possess, I'm going to suggest that this is a really, really good list.  I haven't read everyone on it, but I've read well more than half, and these are quality writers, even if you ignore yours truly.  If you read everyone on this list, you'd come away with a very extensive and a very broad knowledge of the genre.  

I was really quite impressed.  

On nurturing creativity

By Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love.  Best talk on writing ever.




The Athenian army

So, having correctly guessed the Higgs announcement, I'll revert to normal.  Let's talk about the army.

If you were a guy in classical Athens, and your father was a citizen, then when you turned 18 you joined the army.  No exceptions.  You were in for 2 years, which was boot camp.  Boots were known as ephebes.  Nico protests on several occasions in the books that he's done his time as an ephebe.  That's his way of saying he's paid his dues and though he might look young, he's a for-real citizen of Athens with all the rights and privileges that implies.

Athens had its equivalent of the stereotypical boot camp sergeant.  The ephebes were grouped by their tribe membership, and each group had in charge of them a man over forty years of age; someone who was voted by the citizenry to be a fine, upstanding examplar to the lads, and likely to instill the necessary virtues.  Which meant he was really, really tough.

Ephebe training was as much about instilling moral character as toughening you up and teaching you how to fight in a phalanx.  After the first year, you were given a spear and shield by the state and swore an oath.

It seems the ephebes spent a lot of time on guard duty.  They also patrolled the countryside.  I suspect phalanx training was drilled mercilessly, because the last thing you need in a battle is some idiot pointing his spear the wrong way.

Phalanxes work like this:  there are three rows (probably).  The younger men at the front, then the middle-aged, then the old men at back.  The phalanx is a very dense rectangle of men.  There's no such thing as individual combat.  When properly lined up, a man has his spear in his right hand (tough luck for the lefties).   He has his huge, round hoplon shield on his left arm.  The shield covers the left half of his own body, plus the right half of his left-hand neighbour's body.  His right-hand neighbour's shield in turn covers his right half.  This overlap is a natural consequence of everyone holding a big shield in their left hand, but stop and think about it for a moment, so you'll see what happens next...

When a phalanx charges at the enemy, it runs on an ever-increasing angle to the right.  Why?  Because everyone depends on their right-hand neighbour for some of their shield protection.  Everyone wants to nudge themselves a little more behind their neighbour's shield, and the neighbour is busy doing the same.

Generals know this will happen and have a fair idea how much drift there'll be.  They position the units to account for it.

It's not such a bad idea anyway, because although there's a lovely row of shields down your left flank, down your right flank there's absolutely nothing but exposed right arms.  This is why the right hand side of the line is considered the position of honour.  You only put your best soldiers there.  If your right flank gets enveloped, it's going to be a bad day.

Once contact is made, the whole thing turns into a pushing match.  Think rugby scrum with sharp implements and you're probably fairly close.  The idea is to break the enemy line, not kill the individuals.  Once a line is broken, the soldiers are utterly exposed without their shield wall and will typically run.

Warfare is normally a citizen-only exercise, but interestingly, the Battle of Marathon is believed to be the first battle in history in which the slaves fought alongside their masters.


And now for something completely different...

A little while ago I mentioned on twitter the rumour that CERN will announce discovery of the Higgs particle next week.

It's only a rumour, okay?  But I got a few questions from people wanting to know what's a Higgs particle and why does anyone care?  So here's the (long) summary:

You know all matter is made of molecules.  A couple of hundred years ago people thought molecules must be the fundamental smallest building blocks of the universe.  But then it turned out there were teensier things called atoms.  

You can make all the millions of different types of molecule from only 92 different types of atom (number 92 is uranium).  For a while people thought atoms must be the fundamental smallest building blocks of the universe, but then it turned out that atoms had internal structure.  There were teensier things called particles.

All atoms are made up of three different particles: protons, neutrons and electrons.    The protons and neutrons stick together in the centre while the electrons whizz around the outside.  For a while people thought these three particles must be the fundamental smallest building blocks of the universe, but then it turned out there were actually hundreds of these supposedly fundamental particles.  Most of them have been given bizarre names, like the W particle, and the muon antineutrino, &/etc.

Then some of those "fundamental" particles showed signs of having internal structure.

That was kind of depressing because you might be noticing a trend here.  Physicists began to wonder if this chain of teensier and teensier things would ever end.

A fellow by the name of Murray Gell-Mann realized that, if you set aside 4 special particles to carry the known forces, and 6 particles that apparently had zero size (they're called leptons...the electron's one of those), then all the other particles could be explained by combining just 6 very weird looking things that he called quarks.  Gell-Mann was a huge fan of James Joyce, and quark is one of the made-up words in Finnegan's Wake.

This idea was unbelievably successful.  Using 6 quarks, 6 leptons, and 4 force carriers, you could cook them in different combinations to make every particle ever observed; hence build every atom; hence build every molecule; hence build everything.  What's more, the model allowed for combinations that made particles no one had ever seen before.  Physicists went looking for these, and promptly found every one of them, and never found anything that didn't fit.

So this is now known as the Standard Model.  Though I've called these things particles, when you do the mathematics behind this you treat all these things like fuzzy, amorphous blobs that only behave like particles when you look at them from far enough away.  When you look at them up close, they behave like fuzzy amorphous blobs.  The official name for the amorphous blobs is Quantum Field Theory.

The Standard Model doesn't explain why everything has mass.  Mass is the stuff that, when you kick something and it fails to move quickly, you stub your toe.  Mass is the reason why everything resists moving when you push it.

A bunch of guys thought about this, among them a certain Professor Higgs.  (That's Higgs, not Higgins.  The Professor Higgs of this tale is not known to have taught elocution to flower girls.)  Higgs et al. guessed that there must be another type of field (amorphous blob), that came to be known as a Higgs Field, that gave everything the semblance of having mass.  All the other particles are, in effect, swimming through treacle.  The treacle is the Higgs Field and the other particles have to push their way through it.

This was all pie-in-the-sky speculation.  But it was certain, given the way that Amorphous Blob Theory works, that if you concentrated the treacle enough and stepped back, then it would look and behave like a particle.  This inevitably became known as the Higgs Particle.

But no one had ever seen a Higgs Particle.  That was because, even in theory, the amount of energy required to concentrate the treacle field was simply enormous.

So they built the Large Hadron Collider to make concentrated Higgs treacle.  I'm not kidding.  The LHC cost about 4 billion dollars, and pretty much it's sole purpose is to find the Higgs Particle.  Because if we can find that, then we understand mass.  If we understand mass, then there's no telling what interesting things we might be able to do. 

So if the people at the LHC announce the discovery of the Higgs, then that's a very big deal.

Omniscient point of view

I don't do book reviews on this blog, since I'm firmly situated inside a glass house.   Despite which, I do occasionally receive a book or two from publishers, always with the firm understanding that I'm most unlikely to do anything other than read and enjoy the stories.

I want to mention though a book I received a few months ago from the nice people at Bloomsbury, because this book illustrates a very interesting technique that's rarely seen in detective stories.

The book's The Third Rail by Michael Harvey, and the technique is omniscient third person.  The Third Rail is a hardboiled PI detective tale starring an Irish ex-cop in Chicago.  All relatively standard stuff, you might think.

I was chugging along happily, rather liking the book's voice, watching the bodies pile up at a rate that would make even Nicolaos wince, when about halfway in, something unusual happened.  A bad guy decided to kill a whole lot of people (I'm tiptoeing around spoilers here...).  As each victim died, or was seriously injured, the book stopped to tell you what the victim's life would have been like if he or she hadn't been hurt.

Here's an example:
His fourth [shot] punched through the chest and burst the heart of forty-seven-year old Mitchell Case, a second-rate accountant who would never find out about the first-rate affair his wife was having, not to mention the malignant tumor percolating inside his skull.  Case's Corolla was traveling at twenty-eight miles an hour when he was struck.  The car hit the divider, jumped it, and plowed into a van heading north.  That driver, eighteen-year-old Malcolm Anderson, would never meet his daughter, Janine, because she'd never be born.

And so forth.  By the time this scene finished, it was a busy day at the office for the morgue attendants.

Now The Third Rail is written in close third person, which is the most common point of view.  But this scene has flipped into omniscient third, deliberately and to great effect.

Point of view is how the book tells its tale via a narrator.  (I'll call it POV from now on.)

First person POV is an "I" book.  I pulled out a knife.  I waved it around, because I thought it would scare her.  She laughed at me.  The Athenian Mysteries are written in first person from the point of view of Nicolaos.  In a first person book you always see inside the head of the narrator.

Close third person is a "he/she" book, in which we see inside the head of the narrator.  Fred pulled out a gun.  Jane thought he looked ridiculous.  She laughed at him. 

Distant third person is a "he/she" book in which we follow a particular character but don't see inside his head.

You surely know that in third person, it's easy to switch from one narrator to another.  In one scene we might be viewing the action from Jane's point of view, in the next scene we might see through Fred's eyes.  Changing narrator is a normal POV switch.

But here we have something else again.  This book does a POV switch into omniscient third. The new narrator is a godlike being -- not one of the characters -- a godlike being who looks down from above, and tells us what's going on. As you can see from the excerpt, omniscient narrators not only know everything, but they can also see the future, and the past, and look into alternate world lines.

Omniscient third is very rarely seen in detective fiction because, since the omniscient narrator sees all and knows all, including who the killer is right from the start, it's going to be a very short story.  You could, in theory, have an omniscient narrator who deliberately hides his knowledge from the reader, but that would mean the omniscient narrator is also an unreliable witness.  At this point the author feels a migraine coming on and has to take some headache pills and have a good lie down.
 

So all in all I thought Harvey did a great job of switching into omniscience, on that one big set piece scene, and then switching out of it.  By limiting his omniscience, so to speak, he managed to get the benefit without the usual drawbacks.

Posted by Steph Schmidt on twitter

@StphSchmidt tweeted:

"I doubt @GaryCorby ever imagined The Pericles Commission would be oogled on a ferry someday."


She's right!  But I'm glad I got to hear of it.

Gli Antichi Detectives

This is the first time I've ever seen The Pericles Commission reviewed in Italian!

http://www.rivistazetesis.it/Antichi_detectives.htm#Corby

Also, I'm with some very impressive company.


The 7 Habits of People Who Have Great Sex While Becoming Slim, Healthy Billionaires

Pursuant to a conversation on twitter with AmaliaTd, the title of my next book will be:

The 7 Habits of People Who Have Great Sex While Becoming Slim, Healthy Billionaires

I have nothing useful to say on the subject, but I look forward to the increase in my bank balance.

ORBIS: your route planner for the ancient world

Ancient mystery authors rejoice!  Stanford University has produced an online trip planner: one for getting you around the ancient Roman Empire.  It comes complete with route planning, schedule estimates and fare costs.  

My only complaint is all the fares are calculated in denarii rather than drachmae.  But then, the hyper-inflation of the post-Alexander period throws out the costs for me anyway.  


I instantly tested the system on a route for which I knew the answer.  Those of you who've read The Ionia Sanction will recognize this map:


This is the route Nico and Asia took from Athens to Ephesus, aboard Salaminia, the fastest trireme ever built.

Like any ancient author dealing with travel, I worked it out with a map, a ruler, and by knowing the average speed of an African swallow the top speed and average speed of a trireme.  (In the process I learned a lot about trireme dynamics.)

I figured that Salaminia could do it with only a single overnight stop and two very long days. Orbis produced 2.4 days for a standard boat on its quickest route, or 4.5 days if I restricted it to coastal waters and only daylight travel, which would be your average trader.  I did notice you have to be careful with the options.  If I left road travel turned on, the boat stopped on one side of an island, people got off, crossed the island by horse or donkey, then got back on another boat.  Which is obviously unrealistic, but since I did allow it in my choices it's fair enough.

With a little common sense, and by modifying the result with any specific knowledge, it's guaranteed to save you piles of time.  I think this thing is just awesome.  This is what historical research should be in the modern world.


A merry time at Merrylands

Poppy the Possum and friends
Reading is alive and well in Merrylands.  I know this because they invited me to speak there, last Friday, on the occasion of their library's 21st birthday.  It's a week-long celebration and I was privileged to be first off the rank.

The staff at Merrylands are loads of fun.  The picture on the left is me with Poppy the Possum, who encourages kids to read, ably assisted by Kirsty in the middle.  Kirsty's husband is a very clever man because (a) he married Kirsty; (b) he's an expert on ancient history; and (c) he asked tough and fun questions during my talk.

The next two pictures are me pontificating, which I'm rather good at.  I went over time by about 20 minutes and never even noticed.  Frankly, I was having too much fun.

I was also seriously well-matched by the audience.  Early on I was talking about Ephesus, which if you've read The Ionia Sanction you'll know is a city that figures prominently.

It turned out a lady in the audience had walked the place and knew exactly each spot I described.  Then when someone asked me how you get there, I explained the closest location was a Turkish town called Izmir.  Another lady in the middle rows puts up her hand.  She says, "I'm from Izmir."

Piles of brilliant questions from the audience, and they entertained me as much as I, them!

Gary pontificates some more
Gary pontificates

Gary eventually stops talking and signs books









Stephanie Thornton sells three novels at auction!

I've been sitting on this for the last week or so.  Now I can talk about it, because this announcement appeared in the most recent Publisher's Weekly:
Stephanie Thornton's THE SECRET HISTORY, in which a theater tart-turned-Constantinople's premier courtesan must decide what's more important: pleasing the emperor who claims to love her or keeping the son he can never know about, to Ellen Edwards of NAL, at auction, in a three-book deal, for publication beginning in 2013, by Marlene Stringer of the Stringer Literary Agency (World English).
Notice the three book deal and the at auction.  This is publisher-speak for, "These books are really, really good."

If the author's name looks familiar, it's because they're talking about Our Stephanie.

Stephanie first appeared on this blog in September 2009 (I went back and checked) and she's been a regular reader and commenter ever since.  In all that time, and well before, she's been working on her own novels, and now she's earned the reward for unremitting faith in herself, and quality writing.

All three are historicals.  The first is Byzantine.  Those of you who know Stephanie will have no trouble working out that another is Egyptian.

Yay!


More fun ways to die

Ancient Greeks kept coming up with some pretty bizarre ways to depart for Hades.  I'll mention two:

The founder of modern drama was a chap named Aeschylus.  He's considered the founder because he wrote the earliest surviving play: The Persians.  There were certainly earlier playwrights, among them Thespis, from whom we get the word thespian for an actor, but all their works are lost.

Aeschylus moved to Sicily in his final years.  That was a pretty common thing to do, because in those days Sicilians were nouveau riche but culture poor; they had plenty of money to entice famous artists.

We know for sure that Aeschylus was balding in his old age, because of the odd nature of his end.

Aeschylus was walking along one day when an eagle passed overhead.  Eagles like to eat turtles, but the shell is a problem.  The eagles solve that problem by flying high, then dropping the turtle-victim onto rocks to crack it open.

This particular eagle passing by Aeschylus mistook the playwright's balding pate for a stone.  He let go the turtle in his claws.  Aeschylus thus became the first and, as far as I know only, great writer to be struck down by a plummeting turtle.

Aeschylus not only founded drama, but set the standard for tragic writer deaths.  There were three great tragedians of the ancient age, the other two being Sophocles and Euripides.

Not to be outdone, Euripides moved to Macedonia at the invitation of the royal court.  Where he went for a walk.  And was promptly torn to pieces by wild dogs.

Clearly writers should avoid exercise.


Gary at Merrylands Library

Yours truly will be giving a talk at Merrylands Library, in Sydney, on Friday evening next week.  It's the library's 21st birthday!  
I have far too many things I'd like to talk about, so I'd like to ask your opinion.  Out of all the stuff you've seen on this blog, what do you think might make the most interesting talk for a library audience?  Keep in mind that some of the audience, but not all, will be mystery fans.  Some, but not all, will be historical fans, and of course everyone is a reader.  What do you think for a subject?

If you happen to be within reach of Merrylands, I'd love to see you there.

Books about the craft of writing

This has come up in conversation for me a couple of times in the last week, so I thought I'd pop it in here.  The part of writing that you can learn from a textbook is called craft.  Perhaps it should be called The Craft in the same way that black magic is often called The Art.

Craft is to writing what theory and technique is to music.  Craft means not only how to put words together so they work, but also things like scene structure, story structure, character development, how to handle point of view, techniques like mirroring and so forth. With good craft alone it's possible to write an acceptable story that flows smoothly and that anyone will read.  A story that works.

Craft isn't everything.  That story might be ultimately unsatisfying if you haven't covered off the other two essential elements: voice and storytelling.  Nevertheless, I find it odd that more people who want to write don't invest heavily in learning this stuff, because anyone can do it.

If you're the sort of person who learns well from books, then there are piles of texts about writing craft.  I'm dubious about most of them.  The only ones that I'd recommend, and this is very much a personal opinion, is the series Elements of Fiction Writing. I like it because each book in the series is written by someone with real practical experience.  Also because I agree with most of what they say!  Here they are:

Plot, by Ansen Dibell

Description, by Monica Wood

Conflict, Action & Suspense, by William Noble

Beginnings, Middles & Ends, by Nancy Kress.  (Great  book for teaching basic structure.  That's Nancy Kress the SF author.)

Characters & Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card.  (A very great writer.  He knows his stuff.)

Scene & Structure, by Jack Bickham.  (The best book of the lot, in my unhumble opinion, and very advanced.  My favourite "how to write" book.)

But having said that, I strongly believe anyone can learn craft by reading good books and thinking about how they worked.  Most writers do just that.  I did that.  It's like musicians who learned their craft by listening to great songs and picking them apart to see how they were put together.

I'd suggest taking your favourite books, then go through each one, mark out the scene boundaries, and ask yourself what each scene does, why it's there, which characters are in it, how each scene leads to the next, and so forth.  A lot of this is very technical and analytical.  If you do it enough, you'll discover standard patterns in any given genre.  Everyone knows, for example, that there are common techniques across every murder mystery, but few can explain them.  Writers learn the techniques well enough to actually use them.

Fixing fuzzy Adobe

I finally fixed it.  Ages ago, I complained that PDF documents on my computer were going fuzzy in weird ways.  This is the example I put up:


This is my list of for-real ancient Greek people, from which I pick character names.  What happened was bizarre.  I could open the list, and everything would be fine.  Then right before my eyes, the list would slowly but surely turn unreadably fuzzy.  I always thought it was because Adobe was rendering non-English, but that turns out not to be the case.  It happens with mathematics textbooks too.

A lot of googling put the blame on the morphological filter in AMD's video driver, but that never really fixed it.  I just lived with the fuzziness.  But when it reached the point of interfering with my children's homework I put in a concerted effort, and discovered this in Adobe's config:


Turn off 2D graphics acceleration in Adobe.  That fixes it.  The reason people think it was the AMD driver is that, when you cripple the driver enough, Adobe can no longer do harm.

If this problem hits you, Go to Edit --> Preferences in Adobe Reader.  Select Page Display.  Disable as per the image.  Done.


The most unusual duel in history

The most unusual duel in history took place in Paris, in 1808, when two gentlemen, Monsieur de Grandpre and Monsieur le Pique, discovered by accident that they were enjoying the favours of the same lady, a certain Mademoiselle Tirevit. The gentlemen concluded, via their seconds, that the universe wasn't big enough for the both of them. There was nothing for it but that they must fight a duel.

Here they diverged from the standard script. It was agreed by all that the duel be fought from identical hot air balloons, and that the weapon of choice should be a blunderbuss.

One would have thought that in the ensuing month, during which identical balloons were constructed, that cooler heads might have prevailed, but apparently there were none. The balloons were duly delivered and the principals, their seconds and "an immense concourse of spectators" met in le Jardin des Tuileries on the 22nd of June.  If you've ever visited Paris, you've probably walked across where this happened.

I can understand M. de Grandpre and M. le Pique getting into their balloon baskets, but I must question the mental stability of their seconds, who clambered in after their principals, in order to share their fate.  The ropes were cut simultaneously and the two balloons rose into the air, to an estimated  height of half a mile.  The balloons at this stage were separated by about 80 yards.

M. le Pique had the honour of firing first.  He brought up his blunderbuss, aimed carefully at the balloon above M. de Grandpre's head, and fired.

He missed completely.

M. le Pique's second cannot have been pleased at this turn of events. But there was no backing out now.

De Grandpre raised his blunderbuss.  He fired, grievously wounding le Pique's balloon, which plummeted to the earth.  Le Pique and his second were killed on impact.  ("Dashed to pieces" in the original account.)

Honour satisfied, de Grandpre continued his journey until he landed some seven leagues distant. History does not record the outcome of the relationship between de Grandpre and Mademoiselle.

If you think I'm making this up, it's all recorded in The Book Of Days, by Robert Chalmers, published 1863, page 809 of volume 1.

Death on the Nile

We have quite a few Agatha Christie movies on DVD, the ones in which Peter Ustinov plays Hercule Poirot.   Of these, I think probably the best is Death On The Nile.  I'm talking about the movie adaptions here, not the original books.  I presume I'm safe mentioning spoilers on a story that was published 75 years ago...if not, avert your eyes now.

Would you go on a cruise with these people?
These films are done very well indeed.  The cast probably helps.  Even when they're hamming it up as hard as they can go, actors like Ustinov, David Niven, Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury can hardly go wrong, and in passing, it's fascinating to watch the future Miss Marple as a suspect who dies.

I tend to watch these films with the critical eye of a mystery writer.  They're traditional mysteries, of course, and that's quite a different thing to a modern cozy.  My own stories have more than a little in common with Poirot's traditional methods, because Nico, like Poirot, has no CSI to spoil the pure logic of the puzzle.

Yet in Death on the Nile, I was deeply struck by how, in the traditional denouement during which Poirot reveals all, that at the last moment, he tells Doyle that gunshot residue can be lifted from his hands using hot wax.  This is indeed a test that works.  The interesting thing is that this is early CSI, and it's in an Agatha Christie.  Poirot does so because the perps have correctly pointed out that he doesn't have any evidence that would fly in court.  The test is what provokes the inevitable confession.

If a CSI team had been available, this story would have been over within 5 minutes of the murder.

Death On The Nile would be absolutely unwriteable in the modern world.  And that's a pity, because it's brilliant fun.  I have a theory that's why so many recent mysteries have retreated into past times.


The Ionia Sanction at the Historical Novel Society

The Historical Novel Society reviewed The Ionia Sanction months ago, and I utterly failed to report it here.  I'm correcting that grievous fault now.  Here's what they had to say:
Athens, 5th century B.C.: Nicolaos is an investigator for hire, which is not so strange considering this is the city that invented the professional philosopher. Fresh off his last case in The Pericles Commission, Nico (if I may be familiar) has another politically charged murder to solve. This time the investigation takes him to Ephesus, where he uncovers a Persian plot to conquer Athens. 
The action is solidly paced and engaging throughout, while Nico’s noir-ish patter makes the history highly accessible. And there is a lot of history; every major figure gets a mention, including an irritating little brat named Socrates who happens to be Nico’s kid brother. 
Corby weaves in most of these historical nuggets skillfully, and a few that at first appear to be one-off mentions end up being quite relevant to the plot. There are also some very amusing, if slightly anachronistic, jabs at modern times when Nico struggles with concepts such as trousers (a Persian innovation), and mercantilism (“You mean I could come here with a bit of money…buy something I didn’t make myself… and I’d make a profit?”) But Corby succeeds best when he shows us the subtle little nuances of the era. Moments such as Nico’s impromptu – and very touching – sacrifice to Artemis show us that he’s a lot more than Sam Spade in a chitoniskos. He’s a man of a different and very intriguing era, and he’s worth reading.

Happy Easter!

Every year I write a post about where Easter comes from, and why there are bunnies and eggs for what's supposed to be the resurrection of Jesus.  Rather than repeat it again, I'll mention that the original Eostre was an ancient German fertility goddess.

If you'd like to know more, including the one and only mention of Easter in mediaeval sources: here's what I wrote about Easter and Eostre.

May the furry servants of the Goddess bring you something made of chocolate!

Europe's oldest known stringed instrument

The bridge of an ancient instrument has been discovered in Scotland, and it's dated to 2,300+ years ago.  That's getting very close to the period I write.


The bridge is almost certainly from a lyre.  At the very least, it gives us the separation of the strings.  Ancient instruments are so rare that any little piece adds to our knowledge.

Here's a video about it, in which someone plays a reconstruction:



It's not clear to me that they've got the tuning right, though it was probably Pythagorean, and certainly the style of music is unknowable.  But even so, this is fascinating stuff.


Windows 7 Classic Shell, and Everything Search

So what I actually hopped on to write about wasn't level 80 clerics.  It was to talk about two third party apps that I find invaluable for Windows 7.

After the Vista disaster, the people who invented the ribbon interface in Office were promoted to control all of Windows.  They carried across the same interface philosophy.  Since I hate that ribbon, and since one of their brilliant ideas is to remove all classic menu reversion options, I stuck with XP.

Luckily for me a lot of people felt the same way, and someone did something about it.  Over at sourceforge, there's a thing called the Classic Shell.  This wonderful app replaces the hideous Windows 7 mega-blocky-dropdown-mess with a clean, pure, classic Windows menu.

It works brilliantly.  You get the Windows 7 technical advances plus the cleanest Windows interface ever.

The next app is a better file search.  In these googly days you'd think it wouldn't be possible -- or survivable -- to write a bad quality search system, but Microsoft managed it.  Again.  The file search in Win 7 soaks up unbelievable amounts of CPU in return for a file search that's worse then XP's.  The answer is to turn it off completely and instead install the Everything search engine.  It runs like the wind and uses almost no resources.  The search syntax is a bit odd for anyone used to regular expressions, but once you've got it, it's very intuitive.


Cleric Level 80

This is an oldie but a goodie.  Anyone who's ever played D&D, WoW, or any other fantasy role playing game will instantly relate to it.

I wonder if the fellow in the picture knows he's become the standard for super-clerics?


Literary agents on the verge of a nervous breakdown

My dear agent Janet Reid has been running a contest on her site that attracted 416 manuscript entries.  Based on Janet's amusing but increasingly distraught posts on the subject, it seems some people who submitted manuscripts are unclear on the standard format.  There's plenty of information around the net about ms formats, but to make it simple I thought I'd put my own ms template online for anyone to copy if they want.

This is the document format I've used to write four novels.  No one's ever complained to me about it.  In fact, I have a reputation amongst my editors for delivering clean manuscripts, of which the formatting is a small part, so you're probably safe to use this.  This is precisely the file as I submitted it for The Pericles Commission, minus the final 350 pages.  I left in some opening paragraphs so you can see the paragraph style format.

This link will open a read-only copy in another browser window:

Gary's standard ms format 

A few comments:

To use, download the document and change the words.  What could be simpler?  Don't fiddle with the formatting.  When you stare at hundreds of pages every day, the last thing you want is for someone to get creative with formatting.

A manuscript is a tool for writers, like a hammer is a tool for carpenters.  When you pick up a hammer, you'd like the hammerhead and the handle to be in the same place, every time, no matter what the quality of the hammer may be.  The same logic applies to manuscripts.

It would probably be a good idea to change my name for yours, unless you'd like me to receive your royalty cheques.  The name in the top left is your real name; the name under the title is what you want to have appear on the cover.

Don't try to make your ms look like a book.  The publisher has people who'll do that for you.

Word count in the top right of the first page need only be to the nearest thousand.  It's only to get a feel for page count.  The editor really doesn't care if there are precisely 97,354.64 words in your document.  By the time you've finished with the edits, that number will have changed by a few thousand words anyway.

Probably the most important things are the double spacing and the very wide margins.  Since publishing is still firmly embedded in the Stone Age, the editor will print your ms, on real paper, and the copyeditor will scribble all over it, probably in green pencil.  Those margins and the space between the lines are where the copyeditor will save your life by fixing the errors.  It's normal for Copyeditor to rewrite entire sentences in the double-space gaps.  If the editor is your doctor, the copy editor is your head nurse.  Don't make it hard for the nurse to look after you.

New paragraphs begin with a significant indent.  Unless you want the acquiring editor to get a headache while reading your submission.

Start new chapters half a page down.  The copyeditor will use the top half to write printer instructions in red pencil.

Times New Roman is the One True Font.  I'm sure no one would ding you for using Georgia, but since every professional in publishing is happy to use Times New Roman, and every writing system supports it, why would you use anything else?

Don't forget to change the top left of the header for your surname and title.  This is essential so that, when the editor prints your ms and three others, and then drops all four in the elevator, they have a fighting chance of reassembling the right pages in the right manuscripts.  It would be unfortunate if the romantic comedy, the techno-thriller and the zombie horror got mixed up.

You'll notice I created a custom style called Story Paragraph.  I honestly couldn't tell you what's in it exactly because I created it five years ago and haven't changed it since.  Just apply that style to every paragraph, or use the copy format button, which is what I normally do.

Greek and Roman arches

The Greeks had no concept of an arch as we know it.  The Greek temple design is incredibly elegant, and one of the most copied building designs to this day, but it amounts to piling one thing directly on top of another.

They did have an arc they could build, of a type called a corbel arch.  Here's an example:


This is the famous Lion Gate at Mycenae.  I took this picture myself, many years ago.  The stones above the lintel have been placed to overlap a bit, one above another, so that you get the illusion of an arch in negative.  The stones would stay there even if the relief of two lions didn't fill the gap.  By classical times, even the corbel arch had pretty much disappeared from Greek designs.

It remained to the Romans to come up with what we call the Roman Arch.  I've rarely seen a better example of a Roman arch than this fine example:


As you can see, the whole thing would collapse in an instant if gravity wasn't pulling down on every block.  Or in this case, on every computer monitor.  It relies on shaping every block exactly for its position.  The topmost block (monitor) is hugely important and is called the keystone.  It's really very clever.  The downside is nothing can stay up until everything's in place.  So they'd build wooden supports beneath and then knock them away after the keystone was in.

The one thing both Greek and Roman architecture have in common is they both use gravity as glue.


Moderation temporarily turned on for comments

Spammers are currently assaulting my blog with a lot of comment spam.  I've deleted it all (I hope).  I'm sorry to say I must turn on comment moderation until these cretins go away.

I've noticed a significant surge in the last few months of comment spammers who are clearly real people rather than bots.  They write something that looks relevant to the post, in the hope that I won't notice them, and then include a link to their crappy, virus-ridden sink hole of a web site.  Since they're real people, none of the usual anti-spam systems block them.

I really, really, don't want to turn moderation on, because I know many people don't like it.  But alas I must; the only alternative is to turn off comments entirely.  Please bear with me and we'll see what happens.



The Wedding

Something's happened that is long, long overdue.  Anneke Klein has finally written a book.

Anneke is an excellent writer, and as you can probably tell she's an excellent writer in Dutch, that being her native language.  De Bruiloft means The Wedding.

What's remarkable is that she also writes fiction in English, and critiques in her second language.  Anneke's been one of my beta readers since long before The Pericles Commission was a gleam in any editor's eye (which means she knows what happens in book 3).  She's so good at critiques that I've been prodding her for ages to take up manuscript assessment as a  paid job.

Fortunately Anneke ignored me and instead wrote The Wedding, and I couldn't be happier that she's in the print that her talent deserves.

The books that changed me

The Sydney Morning Herald's Sunday edition runs a regular piece called The Books That Changed Me.  Each week, an author nominates five books they think important, and the reasons why.

I'm very happy and privileged to say that this week it was my turn to give it a go.  It's part of the print edition but they also put it online.  If you'd like to see what I picked for the five books that changed me, it's all over at the Sydney Morning Herald.

(My author photo is right next to an author shot of Colleen McCullough...OMG)


Drink like a Greek: wine cups

Ancient wine was quite unlike the modern stuff.  To start with, they added spices, such as fenugreek, which these days you're more likely to find in a curry. They also added seawater, for a very good reason. In a world without sulphur, salt makes the next best preservative.

Wine was always drunk with water mixed in.  No exceptions, not ever.  To drink wine neat was the mark of the worst sort of dissolute barbarian.  The usual ratio was three water to one wine.  Since water filtration plants hadn't been invented yet, the practice might have begun so the alcohol could kill any bugs in the water.  The water and wine was mixed together in a large jar called a krater, and then served out into cups.

Wine at a party was served in a very wide, very flat cup called a kylix.  Here's one at the Metropolitan in New York:


Yes, the decoration on the outside is a naked woman drinking from a kylix.  Some of the decorations on these things would be rated XXX.  Speaking of which, here's a decoration on the inside of a cup.  This is what you'd see after you've drunk the wine:


The lady is playing a drinking game called kottabos.  That's why she's holding her cup in that funny way.  Here are the rules for kottabos:
  1. Drink your wine to the dregs.
  2. Hold cup as per lady in picture.
  3. Throw the dregs at the nearest wall.

Winners are judged for the most interesting patterns on the host's walls, or possibly the furniture or the fellow guests if someone's a bad shot.  

The other, more unusual cup for alcohol, is something much more associated with Vikings, but in fact comes from Persia.  The Greeks called it a rhyton, which is also the English word.  It's a cup in the shape of a horn:


These things were always made in the shape of an animal or some similar subject.  These are at the Getty Villa in L.A., as is this lion:



In The Ionia Sanction at one point I have Nico at a Persian party where he's given a rhyton to drink from in the shape of a boar.


Drink like a Greek: water cups

Ancient Greeks drank water and wine.  Beer wasn't popular.

Water was collected each morning from springs, wells, and, occasionally, public fountains, and carried back to the home. The most famous spring in Athens was called Kallirhoe. It was a tradition to wash in the waters of Kallirhoe on your wedding day.

Most cups were as normal-looking as modern ones, but some were works of art.  The pictures left and right are of a cup in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  It's the sort of thing you would have found in a wealthy house.

And if you think people took their art seriously back then, check out this cup:


Don't ask me how they got it to stand upright.


Such a strange concept

This review of The Ionia Sanction just appeared in the Sunday Herald Sun, an excellent Melbourne newspaper

SUCH a strange concept — a murder mystery set in ancient Athens — yet it works so well in history buff Gary Corby's second Hellenic mystery, The Ionia Sanction. 
The year is 460BC and Nicolaos, the only investigating agent in Athens, is called on by the city's leader, Pericles, to investigate the suspicious death of an Athenian official. 

But after tracking the killer and letting him slip through his fingers, Nico finds himself on his boss's bad side and desperate to make amends. 

Nico's quest to solve Thorion's murder takes him across the oceans to the Persian Empire. There he runs into his ex-girlfriend, meets the infamous Greek traitor Themistocles and uncovers a Persian plot that threatens to destroy Athens. 

This fascinating book blends historical events and figures with fiction to create a funny, gripping and satisfying mystery you won't be able to put down. 

SAMANTHA LANDY 
VERDICT  ★★★★☆ 

It occurs to me people might not know how newspaper reviews come to be.  The simple answer is: I don't have much of a clue myself.  

What happens is Heidi the Publicist, who's extremely good at this sort of thing, sends  the book out to known quality reviewers and then waits to see who's interested.  The first I hear of a review is when Heidi or some other responsible adult lets me know it's out there.  My contribution is absolutely zero, if you don't count writing the book in the first place.  I have no idea what any review is going to say until it appears.  

Reading your own reviews is a slightly nervous process; I read the first paragraph, then I read the last paragraph to see if I'm doomed.  Then with a feeling of relief I read the whole thing; at least three times.